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Issue 9.1


Book: Talent is Overrated

Issue: 9.1 (November/December 2010)
Author: Marc Zeedar
Article Description: No description available.
Article Length (in bytes): 7,164
Starting Page Number: 17
Article Number: 9105
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Most of my family is musical, so when as a kid I expressed an interest in the violin, the next thing I knew I was taking lessons. I hated it and went out of my way to sabotage my lessons (even to the extent of "accidentally" breaking violin strings and bridges), but I was told I was "talented" and it would be wrong to waste that talent. That made me feel guilty. I actually stuck with it for a few years, though I never enjoyed it. The truth is that I liked the idea of playing, but not the hard work to learn to do it.

This terrific book is about obliterating the myth of such "talent." With plenty of concrete examples and new evidence from studies, author Geoff Colvin tries to prove that there is no such thing as ingrained ability. We are all born with no knowledge or ability at all. What we think of as talent is really the result of incredibly hard work.

Of course the first contradictory example that comes to the reader's mind is what about child prodigies like Mozart or Tiger Woods? Weren't they born gifted?

But Colvin digs deeper than the legends and shows how both Tiger and Mozart began their learning at incredibly early ages (practically from when they could first walk). Both their fathers were devoted teachers and coaches, so it makes sense that by the time they were five or six they were well-advanced. But it's also fact that neither did anything truly great or remarkable until they were age 21. (Mozart's early compositions weren't original and Tiger didn't even turn pro until age 20.)

Colvin shows that this trend of not being great until older isn't unusual and has been proven over and over in dozens of fields. Countless "prodigies" were really good for their age, but didn't do anything truly remarkable until they'd been studying their craft for at least ten years.

This doesn't mean that there aren't inclinations or physical abilities that help one's quest for greatness. A four-foot-eleven-inch boy is never going to be a basketball star. But most of what we think of as natural gifts are actually developed. Even something that seems innate like athletic ability is often subtly emphasized by doting parents who praise and encourage their child when he runs or shows athletic prowess as a toddler, so that he learns to push those capabilities and thus ends up ahead of his peers. The same applies to musical "talent" and other fields: when the prodigy's history is examined closely, we usually find parents or teachers encouraging development from an early age, often not even realizing it. For instance, a child responds to music and the parents decide the child is musically inclined and thus present more opportunities for musical growth.

I like this premise because it makes more sense to me than the idea that some people are just born with a genetic disposition to do something like write or to trade stocks. The truth is we're born with no skills at all. We might have certain physical gifts that help us or family that lean us in a direction (i.e., literary parents are more likely to read to their young children, causing them to grow up with stronger verbal skills), but it's up to us to do the work.

That leads to the next part of the book where Colvin shows how it's not just rote practice that makes us better, but a particular kind of study—what he calls deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is organized and focuses on areas of weakness. The author's example of how most of us randomly hit golf balls at the driving range is excellent: few of us know enough about our weaknesses to know precisely what to practice and how to improve. We'll hit a few balls with each club and think that somehow we're getting better. But a great golfer like Tiger will hit hundreds of balls with one club, just working on a tiny thing like his shoulder movement or back swing or grip or whatever. That kind of practice isn't fun at all: it's incredibly hard work that requires supreme concentration.

The cool part of all this is that Colvin shows how all of us can benefit from deliberate practice in anything we do. In business or life, we can all get better, but most of us don't—we just go through the motions. For instance, if we give a sales pitch that fails, we might just decide that we don't have a "talent" for sales and avoid sales pitches in the future. But we can't get better avoiding the problem! Great sales people don't let a rejection slow them down: they concentrate, focus on where they went wrong and how they can do better next time, and they're willing to be adventurous and try new techniques and not be troubled if they don't work.

Overall the book is articulate and well-written, though not particularly creative, and it takes a lot of pages to make its simple point. I suppose if you're inclined to disagree with the point you may need the additional convincing, but I really like the idea that there is no such thing as talent, only skill, so I didn't need much convincing.

The good thing about the book is the way it has changed my thinking: I am literally deleting the word "talent" from my vocabulary. I will replace it with skill. Think how that changes your perspective. If I say to you, "You have no talent for singing" versus "You have no skill for singing." With the first phrase, you're likely to just give up and not try. But with the second, you might think, "Hey! I could learn that skill." In other words, this book is inspiring and empowering. It's well worth the read.

End of article.